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A settled nomad living on the edge of Appalachia. I love to listen to music, spend time with my family, and play sports. I'm lucky enough to write code for a living. I'm often accused of having no "filter" as I tend to overshare. I make beer on occasion and try to sample new beers whenever I can.$BillRawlinson

This Weekend We Were Not "Les Miserables"

17 min read


Sometime in 1989 or 1990 I asked a girl out on a date to see Les Miserables at the Proctors Theatre in Schenectady NY.  I worked part-time making ice cream sundaes at the local Friendly’s and the two tickets cost me a full month's wages.  However, I had heard great things about the show and I really wanted to go so I figured it was worth it.

On the day of the performance I got dressed up and awaited my date (who was also my ride).  However, instead of seeing her pull up at the front door I listened to her on the phone backing out.  I had about 20 minutes until the show was about to start, I was a couple miles from the theater, and I had no ride.  I dashed out of the house and began running - there was no way I was letting that investment go to waste.  It’s a good thing I ran distance for my high school track team.  I made it with some time to spare.

While I cooled off outside the theater and elderly man asked me if I had  spare ticket I could sell him.  He and his wife were in town visiting someone and they had just bought a ticket from some other guy who appeared dateless.  I was twice the face value of the ticket so I sold it.  At that point I figured my day wouldn’t be able to get any better - I was about to see the show for free!

I was wrong - the show blew me away.  The stage and set were incredible, the story was engrossing, and the singers were amazing.  It affected me.  My tastes in music were altered, my perception in how a person could sing were destroyed.  I had no idea an orchestra could sound so good.  I had no idea people could hold a note so long.  I had no idea.  I was seventeen and clueless.  I don’t remember the entire show but I know it moved me.  I may have cried.

I walked home afterwards in a daze.  I spoke about the show for days afterwards.  I imagine my mom got tired of me talking about it.  I still talk about it whenever someone gives me the chance.  It has, since that moment, been my favorite show of any kind.

Memories are dangerous though.  Nothing lives up to your memories.  In fact, in contrast most things suck when re-experienced after having been built up in your memories over the years.  My memories, certainly, have made Les Mis better than it could possibly be.  I have seen many musical since then and while they were all, for the most part good, they sucked in comparison to my memory of Les Mis.  “Rent”?  meh.  “Avenue Q”?  boring.  Sure, when viewed independently each of the other shows I’ve seen have been enjoyable - I just don’t compare them.

I have not seen Les Mis again since that day all those years ago.  My memory has just continued to pile on the greatness.  Thus, it was with great trepidation that I opened my Christmas present this past December and saw that Lisa was giving me two tickets to Les Miserables on tour in Greenville SC.

I was excited but I knew nothing could live up to my memory so I tried to tell myself to be happy if it was a third of the experience. I tried to cut back on listening to the soundtrack.  I tried not to think about the show at all.  I had enough distractions with taking a new job that, for the most part, it worked.  Well, except the cutting a back on the soundtrack; that just wasn’t going to happen.

As the date approached I did slow down my soundtrack replays.  I also managed to avoid thinking about the show entirely.  Instead I just focused on the trip that surrounded it.  We took a long four and a half day weekend that involved visiting some friends in Johnson City, TN; two days in Asheville, NC; and a little over a day in Greenville, SC.


Asheville is an interesting two full of quirky shops, interesting people, and a personality split between incredible opulence and a artistic freedom.  In general, both Lisa and I really enjoyed our entire visit to Asheville and I would recommend it as a weekend getaway for almost anyone.  We enjoyed the shops, the brewpubs, the street art, musicians, and the Biltmore.

The Biltmore Estate is the largest privately owned residence in the US.  It’s about 125,000 sq feet and was built for a four person family of George Vanderbilt (grandson of the shipping/railroad tycoon of the same last name).  The house is situated on 8,000 acres.  The land is all beautiful.  In fact, the three mile long “driveway” carved through my favorite portion of the estate; a lush and peaceful forest.  Everything about the residence and the grounds speaks incredible wealth.

It’s really hard to imagine a family of four (plus the untold number of servants) living in the house.  The dining room contains two tables - one for 37 people (used whenever more than four people were going to dine) and a table for four.  That room alone was apx 3,500 sq feet.   That’s two normal sized houses laid out in one room.  It is truly something you have to see to appreciate.

However, at least for me, it is hard to separate the majesty of the house with the fact that it is obscene that four people lived that well while, just off the property, the surrounding countryside was populated with poor farmers and sharecroppers.  The house was completed about 30 years after slavery ended and was built, in large part, by black laborers - many of whom were probably born as slaves.  When viewed in that light it just made the house seem wrong.  The Vanderbilts were truly the 1%.

Just about two miles away from the Biltmore lies downtown Asheville and the difference between the two is stark.  That isn’t to say that downtown is dilapidated - it isn’t (far from it in fact) - just that while the Biltmore is overstated elegance downtown Asheville is a comfortable conclave of artists, musicians, students, shops, and brewpubs.

Lisa and I stayed at one of the few hotels in the downtown area so we could just walk around, drink, and safely get back to our room.  The city was full of neat little surprises.  There was a little inverted corner hidden behind a gate that descended into a cozy courtyard, there were some cool cat sculptures including one hanging out on a lamp, and there was a spectacularly restored old arcade (not the video game kind).  We wound our way through all of the downtown streets and on each one we found new cool shops that we couldn’t help but go into.  It was all very cool.

It is my understanding that Asheville has risen like a phoenix in the past twenty years.  They’ve done an amazing job of making it into a city that you would want to live in.  The entire downtown area sees fully of unity and camaraderie.  There is a real sense of community.  Nothing makes this more evident than the Friday night “Drum Circle” that takes place each week in Pritchard Park.  A wide cross section of the city show up.  I’d guess about fifty different people were playing a variety of percussion instruments while at least twice that many stood off to the side and watched while still another fifty danced and hula-hooped.  

From the tone and sound of it I expected it to be a purely “hippy” kind of experience and, for the most part, it was.  However, the crowd was anything but a simple gathering of stoners.  There were people playing drums while still wearing their neckties, there was an older black lady rocking the tambourine, and there were little kids shaking their maracas.  Amongst the drummers the mix was pretty even between men and women but the ages spread from around eleven (a girl) to a woman who was at least seventy.  It was very cool and it filled the night air with a great rhythm as Lisa and I dined just across the street a local (but spreading) joint called the Tupelo Honey Cafe.


I had heard some good things about the revitalization of Greenville before this week so I was a little dismayed by the rundown condition of the north-western outskirts we passed through on our way in.  However, once were reached our hotel, on Main Street, I was impressed with what they have done to bring back the “downtown” feel of Greenville.

It is easy for me to compare and contrast Greenville from Asheville but it isn’t fair for either of them.  Greenville made me think of a casual stroll through the park in a seer sucker suit.  It was casually formal.  We didn’t have as much time in Greenville so I can only really speak about the Main Street (yes, it’s actually called Main Street).

Main Street is beautiful.  It is a wide but peaceful boulevard surrounded by expansive sidewalks and draped by tall shady trees.  If, for some odd reason, you were driving down Main you’d feel compelled to park and start walking.  It’s incredibly inviting.  The streets are lined with small, slightly high end, shops, restaurants and cafes.  Most of the restaurants had abundant sidewalk seating.  Plus, and this was cool in Asheville too, their street facing walls were entirely open to the fresh air and the public walking by.   Some of the restaurants accomplished the open wall via french doors and others via a “garage door” type system.  Either way they did it the effect was a welcoming one that was also very comfortable while we were dining.

Greenville made me want to be, at least temporarily, “southern.”  Well, not entirely, but I did want to try and make my visit as authentic as I could so I tried to eat food I just can get anywhere in the north so, for lunch, I had shrimp and grits.  I was pretty sure when I ordered it that I wouldn’t like it and that I was just paying for an experience.  I was wrong.  It was pretty tasty.  The grits were blended with some kind of creamy sauce that had a hint of the shrimp flavor and they went wonderfully with the seafood.  

I’ve had grits a lot in the past and I like them - sort of.  I started eating them when I was in the Army but I didn’t like them with butter.  Instead I prepared them with sugar and milk - sort of like oatmeal - and I really liked it.  It was the only way I’d had grits that I liked.  Granted, these were probably all instant grits, but it was what I knew about grits.  Thus I really didn’t think I’d like savory grits.  I’m glad I ventured out of my comfort zone because I would definitely eat shrimp and grits again.

While I’m not sure it counts as southern, the next morning for breakfast I also went way outside my comfort zone and had corned beef hash with poached eggs.  The hash had a creamy horseradish sauce on it and it was also pretty good.  I’m not sure I’d order it again elsewhere but it was a good and filling breakfast and I’m glad I had it.

One of the highlights of Main Street is Falls Park which is a fantastic multi-layered park right on the western portion of Main.  There is a cool suspension bridge that gives you a great view of the waterfall.  We were lucky to be there on the same night as one of the Greenville high school’s had their prom.  Lisa loves admiring the girls dresses on prom night in Huntington so she was thrilled to get to “prom stalk” the girls of Greenville.  I’d say, for the most part, she loved their dresses.  Plus, it was cool to see so many young people hanging out downtown even if it was just for a special occasion.

The Experience

Starting five years ago Lisa and I decided to stop giving each other traditional “object” gifts from Christmas. Instead, we alternate giving the other an Experience.  So far we’ve been to an NHL all-star game, the Grand Canyon, Niagra Falls/Toronto, and Chicago for Cubs game.  This year we went to Asheville and Greenville but the experience was Les Miserables.  I enjoyed seeing our friends and I loved exploring the new towns but, for me, they were all secondary to Les Mis.

We had our tickets for Saturday night, at 8pm so we headed back to the hotel and got into some nice clothes and then headed to the Peace Center about a block away.  We arrived at 7pm.  We were not going to be late.  It’s a good thing too because the Peace Center doesn’t mess around.  Once it is time for the show to start - it starts.  There is no warning dimming of the lights; it’s just lights out, a quick reminder to turn off your cell phone, and then the music starts.

The Peace Center has an unusual layout - but the acoustics were great (to my untrained ears).  However, before the show Lisa and I had to stand and wait for our aisle to fill.  We were in row V, seats 1 and 2.  That put us three rows from the back of the first floor  - right on the edge of the row. There is no center aisle so everyone has to go in via the end.  That was cool though because we got to meet the nice couple sitting behind us.

While we talked someone mentioned that the set had changed and that the turntable was no longer part of the show.  The turntable was one of the key features of my initial experience that really struck me.  I am pretty sure I made an audible sound of appreciation way back in 1989.  The turntable added a lot of cool depth to the stage and animated the scenery.  It was very cool.  Lisa told me that she knew some people who had seen the old version and this new set version and that this new set was even better.  I was skeptical.  I mean, no turntable and better?  Please!

When the first notes hit I had serious chills.  I’m talking full body goosebumps.  I stopped thinking about how the show was 23 years ago and just instantly lost myself in the music and story of this production.  To be honest, initially I was lost.  I recognized the song but my mind was still a little caught on the turntable so I forgot what the initial scene was supposed to be.  I had to clear my mind and just listen.

Fortunately, the singers were great so it was easy to “just listen”.  At times it felt like they were singing a little faster than I remember the songs going but their voices were still incredible.  It was also interesting that some of the voices sound so similar to the voices I was familiar with from listening to the soundtrack.  

True to what I was told the set was vastly different.  It was far more complex this time around.  There seemed to be a lot more pieces to it and the set was constantly moving and changing as the singers performed.  In fact, the set was so alive it was practically another character in the show.  One of the more notable shifts of the set were after Jean Valjean stole some silver from the bishop.  When he was captured and brought before the judge the set was shifting as he ran so that as the police turned him around he was suddenly facing a very highly seated judge who seemed to magically appear there out of thin air.  The stage hands and manager deserve some serious accolades for their work at keeping the set changing so smoothly.

Just before the end of the first half of the show the screen on the back of the stage begins to show its’ potential but, it is later, when after Valjean flees into the sewer carrying Marius that the backdrop came into its’ own.  In the scene Valjean exists stage right dragging Marius and then the lights shift and the backdrop is altered to look like a stone tunnel.  Somehow, as if by magic, Thénardier seems to walk out of the screen and the tunnel image shifts to make it appear as if the tunnel is even longer.  After Thénardier loots a corpse the scene changes a little more so that suddenly the stage appears to be a full crisscross of catacombs while Valjean enters from stage left still dragging Marius.  It was very cool - and thanks to the lighting - and the shifting tunnel scene on the backdrop - I said, out loud (and not in a whisper), “That is cool”  I felt a little guilty for bursting out like that but it was really cool.

I did miss the turntable and I don’t think this set was better than the old one.  But, it wasn’t any worse either.  It was cool and great in its own way.  They were able to do some amazing things with the set.  I’m still not sure how they managed to change it around so frequently and so quickly.  It was extraordinary.

There were a few other changes compared to my memory, most notably how the climax at the barricade was handled.  However, it was still gut crushing.  In my memory Gavroche’s final scene takes places on the top of the barricade and was shocking in its delivery.  However, in this rendition you can’t see Gavroche but Grantaire’s scream of anguish is painful and may have caused a tear or two to be shed.

The entirety of the performance was really good.  The only real knock I have is that the singers weren’t always as clear as I would have liked so that I couldn’t understand them.  However, considering my expectations going in where that it would, maybe, be about a third as good as the show of my memory, it was exceptional.  This was one of those rare memories that, when revisited, wasn’t a let down.  I can’t remember any other time in my life where that happened.

The only downside is now the pressure is really on me to come up with an experience for Lisa this Christmas.

Surprise - We're Going to Disney World

11 min read

Last week was Spring Break for the girls and Lisa and I had a wickedly fun plan to surprise them with a trip to Disney World. On Monday morning Lisa took the girls to Patti's house as she normally would if we were going to work and then she came back home where she and I worked on finishing the packing before we headed back over to get the girls.

When we got there Shannon was pretty confused. She wanted to know why we were there and we told her that since it was the first day of Spring Break that we had taken the afternoon off to have some fun with her and Emily. Emily suggested we go to Ritter park - so I asked if maybe she'd like to go to a larger park. Shannon said sure. I asked them if maybe they'd like to go to Disney World and Emily said "YES!" and Shannon said "Sure." I told Emily "OK, Let's go" and Emily started to hop around in excitement. Shannon very skeptically said again, "Sure, let's go to Disney World." I agreed with the idea again and old her I was serious, that we could go to Disney World that day. Shannon didn't believe me at all but Emily did and she was stoked. I ended up pulling our suitcases out and showing Shannon all of the stuff we packed before she seemed convinced.

From Patti's we went to Arby's for a light lunch and then the local, small, airport for a direct flight to Orlando Stanford Airport. It is a smaller airport about 45 minutes from Disney - but we had a car waiting on us and we went straight to our hotel, The Port Orleans. In the past we've always stayed at the All Star hotels - but we decided to upgrade our accommodations this time so that our bus rides to each park would be a bit shorter. Overall we were glad we did. The hotel was nice, the food was better than that at the All Star, and the bus ride was a lot shorter. Plus, the swimming pool looked really cool and had a neat water slide.

After we settled in we decided to head to the Magic Kingdom part of the park (the traditional Disney World) in order to get in some rides and enjoy one of the many parades. We stayed at the park until around midnight before we headed back to the hotel for some sleep. Everyone had a nice time and, I think, by this time Shannon was fully convinced. Our first full day, Tuesday, also took place at the Magic Kingdom.

We started Tuesday off by waiting to meet with Rapunzel - Emily's current favorite princess. The wait was pretty lengthy so while Lisa and Emily waited Shannon and I went to Tomorrowland and took in the Stich Experience which we knew Emily wouldn't like. Once that was done we headed back to Emily and Lisa for the Rapunzel experience. Rapunzel's bit lasted for about an hour because the girls were given a craft to do, then they danced with Rapunzel and her beau Flint Ryder. Finally they each got to have their picture taken with the pair. Rapunzel did a great job of playing the part but I have to say Flint did an even better job - he had the Flint Ryder smirk down pat. Their helpers also did a great job of keeping all of the kids engaged while they waited on their turn to have their photo taken. It was the most interactive experience they've had with a Disney character so far.

After the Rapunzel experience we walked around Fantasy Land and took in some rides like the teacups which Emily and Shanon both loved; especially since I was tasked with making the cup spin as fast as possible. We also made sure to go on the rest of Emily's favorite rides like "A Small World" and "Dumbo" it was great watching her have so much fun.

Four years ago, on our first trip to Disney World, I tricked Shannon into going on Space Mountain with my brother and his two kids. I was pretty worried about her and was not a good companion for the ride and I undoubtedly made the experience more stressful for her than it had to be. Earlier this school year, for English class, Shannon wrote a paper about how terrified she was on the ride but how she also had a lot of fun. With that in mind she decided she wanted to try out Space Mountain again so we got in line. However, just before we could get on the ride she backed out and decided against it.

A bit later that evening the four of us went on Thunder Mountain which is an outside roller coaster themed like an old train. Emily had been on it before but wasn't thrilled with going on it again on this trip but both she and Shannon enjoyed themselves. When we had finished I mentioned to Shannon that Space Mountain wasn't much different but that it was indoors and dark. She decided again to go on the ride and this time she didn't back out. Instead she had a blast and asked to go right back on it.

It was around 11:30pm and the park was mostly empty so we were able to go through the line without waiting. She was addicted to the ride and wanted to go on it again and again but, sadly, the park was closing so we couldn't do it more than twice. I was super proud of her for overcoming her fear and trying it again.

On Wednesday we went to Epcot Center. There we went on Mission: Earth which is a cool NASA simulation that sort of feels like you're taking off in a rocket and sling-shotting around the moon to Mars. It's pretty fun and Shannon, who had done it on our last trip, still really enjoyed it. A bit later we went to one of Emily's favorite rides "Finding Nemo" which has some pretty cool technology in it that makes the animated fish seem to be existing in the real world artifacts of the ride. I'm not sure how it works but it is cool and all four of us enjoyed it.

Before dinner we headed back to the hotel to spend some time in the pool. We had actually spent a little bit of time in it the day before but without Lisa. On Wednesday Lisa came to the pool too and the girls were able to show her how they could use the water slide. Shannon just learned how to basically swim last summer and Emily still can't. Thus, at the slide Shannon got the hang of it and was willing to slide off and submerse herself - a particularly cool trick considering her prior reluctance to put her head under water. Emily wasn't really ready to do the slide by herself so she would get to the top of the slide and call out my name and then give me a thumbs up. She wouldn't slide down until I returned the thumbs up signal. It was pretty cute.

That night we had dinner at a restaurant with Chip 'n Dale (Pluto and Mickey were there as well). It was a neat restaurant that rotates above one of the rides we had gone on earlier in the day. The girls really enjoyed the meal, the changing scenery, and the characters. After that we headed to Downtown Disney for some shopping and we finally made it back to the hotel by midnight. It was a great day but also exhausting so when we finally got back to the hotel we all fell into a deep sleep for a later wake up the next morning for a day at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Hollywood Studios is a more "adult" themed park with bigger rides and more "extreme" shows. Overally I think it was Emily's least favorite day with the exception of a neat magical experience that evening that had Mickey replaying his role as the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Honestly, I thought the show was bit disjointed but some of the effects in it were pretty cool. However, it was not the highlight of my day - instead Shannon turned the trip from a good one into a great one by opening my eyes.

Earlier in the day she had asked me about the Aerosmith Rockin Roller Coaster. I told her, based on part of my memory, that it was like a much faster Space Mountain. I didn't mention the loop-the-loop or the corkscrew. She decided she wanted to go on it so we headed over. There was a 70 minute line! In hopes that we could shortcut the line we went in the single-rider line where they separate groups and fill in empty seats. Our wait was still about 60 minutes but eventually we were put on the ride. We were actually in the same car but she was about 10 rows behind me. I was pretty worried about her but because we were so far apart I couldn't talk to her or really think about how she was doing - I just had to hold on and enjoy the ride.

I'm glad we were apart. I think, had I been with her, that I would have ruined the ride for her with my stress. Instead she thought it was the best ride ever. She loved it and wanted to go right back on it. She loved the loop-the-loop and thought going upside down was amazing. She couldn't have been happier and I was super proud of her. As we left the ride I asked her if she wanted to go on the Tower of Terror and she declined. It was at this point that we had to go to the big Mickey show so she had about an hour to contemplate the Tower. When the show ended she told me she did want to give the tower a try. I was a little surprised but I wasn't worried considering how well she handled the Rocking Roller Coaster so we hurried over and got in the empty line.

As we were getting in she said she was a little worried and I said, "don't be, the roller coaster is scarier than this" and I meant it. We rode up and then the drops began. We fell about five stories, bounced back up, fell again, zoomed up and down and up and down. After about five bounces she said she felt like she was going to get sick and I told her to hold on, we only had one bounce left. She smirked in disbelief but I was lucky and we only had one left - it was a big one though. She didn't get sick but she was glad it was over. I gave her five and we walked away from the ride where she decided she was swearing it off and wouldn't ride it again.

As we walked down the path, away from the ride, a mother was talking to her son telling him he could handle the Tower that the Rocking Roller Coaster was scarier. Shannon turned around and yelled, "NOT IT ISN'T! DON'T BELIEVE HER THIS IS MUCH WORSE!!" It was hilarious. Needless to say the boy did not get up to go on the ride.

From there we reconnected with Lisa and Emily, had our photo taken by the huge Mickey Sorcerers Hat, and then headed back to the hotel for some sleep before our flight home.

It was our best, and shortest, Disney trip yet. The lines were, generally, non-existent and the weather was perfect (mid 80s, sunny, and no-humidity). The girls both did things they had never done before, neither one of them was sick at all, and they will both remember this trip for years to come. It was awesome to see them both have so much fun. All in all it was a great surprise for their Spring Break and Shannon's 10th birthday. I'll post photo's as soon as I have a chance.

My Mice

1 min read



The girls took a small break at Disney World at the Hall of Presidents

Pumpkin Carvings 2010 Edition

2 min read

Last night we sat down to do our annual pumpkin carving.  As usual we all enjoyed ourselves and, I think, we had some pretty creative pumpkin efforts even if they didn't turn out exactly like we had hoped/expected.

Emily is finally getting to the point where she is strong enough to do some of the cutting herself so she managed to cut out one of her pumpkin eyes before needing help.  Shannon is finally able to attempt to express her creativity in her carving and this year she gave herself the difficult task of carving the Pillsbury Dough Boy into her gourd.  Lisa decided to get a bit retro and she created a hippy pumpkin with a big peace symbol for an ear.    Meanwhile, I decided to try for my most detail oriented pumpkin yet and I attempted to carve out the Cat in the Hat.

We don't have any cool special tools like a dremel to do these with; we use a razor blade, a grapefruit spoon, and some old broken up pumpkin carving saws that came in a kit.  Needless to say our tools aren't really quite sufficient for the job all the time but I'm still happy with how they all came out.

Here's a slideshow of the pumpkins both in daylight and glowing at night.  Enjoy.

Home Theater PC

7 min read

Lisa and I recently decided to remove some additional expenses from our life such as cable tv (we use the Dish Network); between the various receivers, the HD package, and the DVR capabilities it has been costing us close to $90/month. However, we still like to watch a little TV and we like having family movie nights. Furthermore, we have fallen in love with the capabilities of a DVR. Pausing, rewinding, and recording TV shows is just awesome. It makes the entire TV viewing experience infinitely more enjoyable. Therefore, once we decided to cut back our monthly expenses we decided to investigate how we could still meet our small list of aforementioned tv entertainment requirements. The answer we settled on was a Home Theater PC - or an HTPC.

At it's simplest an HTPC is a computer with a tv capture card and, optionally, a dvd player built into it. Ideally you also need it to have an HDMI video/audio output so you can connect it to your modern TV and it should have some good software installed on it for managing your media and providing DVR capabilities.

In order for us to have an HTPC I actually had to buy a new computer. I haven't bought myself a computer since I was in University, so maybe 1999. I decided to build one from the ground up with the best parts I could afford. Here is my parts list:

  • Gigabyte Motherboard : GA-880GMA-UD2H R - this thing is pretty awesome.  It has a nice video card built in that can do HD decoding and it has a nice audio card that provides dolby digital surround sound.
  • HAUPPAUGE TV Tuner : 1229 HVR-2250 - Has a dual tuner capability that hooks right up to our over the air HD antennae (we already owned) which lets us watch a show while recording something else.
  • LG DVD Burner : GH23NS50 - It's cheap, only $20, and it works.  Plus it has a black face so it fits into the overall aesthetic.
  • Seasonic Power Supply : S12II 530 Bronze RT - Super quiet and has all the cables I could ask for.   I can't stress how important super quiet is - don't skimp on your power supply
  • AMD Athalon II CPU : ATH II x2 230E 2.8G AM3 RT - A nice dual core cpu that supports 64 bit operating systems.  However, the best part of this bad boy is the paltry 45W power consumption.  Since this computer will be on all the time it needs to be a miser with energy and this CPU fits the bill.
  • 4 Gigs of RAM : Kingston ValueRAM 2x 2 GB (2x1GB) DDR 3 SDRAM - I bought 2 of this package to fill all of my memory slots.  I could have gone for more RAM but considering this computer will have a sole task of managing our media I think 4G will be enough.  I had actually seen some people recommend only 2 GB but I am a big believer in more RAM is better.
  • Western Digital Green HardDrive - 1 TB WD10EARS 64M - The Western Digital Green harddrives are lower power consumption, super quiet drives made specifically for this purpose.  This was a no brainer.
  • LianLi Case : PC-V351B RT - I picked a case I thought would look good in the "home theater" decor.  It is fairly cubicle in shape so it looks a bit like a subwoofer. I could have gotten something shorter and wider, like a stereo receiver shape, but I liked the space in this one while working in it - plus it still looks nice.  This case is all aluminum which, supposedly, will help keep the whole system cooler as well.  Plus it has some nice, but silent, fans inside the front to help keep everything cool as well.

The final price on this was $625 and I have, what I believe, will be a kick ass machine for our purposes.  I realize, $625 is a bunch of money but, in the course of a year we pay close to $1080 for the dish network (90x12).  Thus this outlay will save us, in the first year, about $400.

My initial plan was to use Linux and MythTV in conjunction with Boxee to provide us with DVR capabilities (Myth) and access to Hulu and Netflix (Boxee).  However, the video drivers for my graphics card on Linux aren't very good (pretty typical experience for me) and I couldn't get the HD decoding to work (tough I was able to watch some standard definition TV and pause/record it).  However, since I was not happy with the overall quality I decided to go to Windows 7 professional, 64 bit (another $150) which has a pretty feature rich media center built in.  After using it for just one evening,without internet access yet, I'm pretty happy with my choice.  It picked up all, but one, of our local channels and is pushing them out to our TV in full High Definition.   Once I get the internet setup on it I'll try out Boxee and Hulu Desktop to see what I want to settle on for internet TV.  Plus, we will be resubscribing to Netflix for $10 month ($120 year) which we can use to stream movies and we can get DVDs of various past seasons of TV shows and other movies.  We'll also be able to stream netflix to our other TV via the Wii which is a nice bonus.

After the Windows 7 purchase and Netflix our savings in the first year will be reduced to about $150.  However, each following year will result in a net savings of closer to $950 and we will still have all of the TV entertainment we like; plus we will have the flexibility to amend to the feature set as we go.  Overall I'm pretty happy with the decision.

Before going this route we had to make a couple other changes that aren't directly related to our TV.  First, and foremost, we had to change internet service providers.  When Verizon left WV and gave over control to Frontier our quality of service dipped substantially.  We ended up only realizing about a 200Kb/s data rate instead of the 3M/b (3,000Kb)/s rate we were paying for.  So we switched to Comcast and a cable modem with a contracted rate of 11 Mb/s - we have been seeing that and better since we had it installed.  I also bought a cable modem (Motorola SB6120) for $83 instead of renting one from comcast for $5/month.  That will end up in realized savings in just over a year.    Finally, I also opted to buy a new, and much better, wireless router (Buffalo WZR-HP-G300NH) since many parts of our house have had deadspots with the old router.  The new router also supported being modified with the highly acclaimed open source router firmware DD-WRT.  After installing this new router not only did we no longer have any deadspots but I can, if I choose, walk across the street to the park and stay online.  While we won't realize any savings with the new router we will definitely avoid a lot of our past frustration so it was worth the $70.

Kickball Kickoff

5 min read

Baseball diamonds for some harkens back to halcyon days of baseball glory; bats cracking, star spangled singing, and crowds roaring. For others, however, for others, the diamond is the home for an oft overlooked sport - Kickball.

I have gathered around me 21 teammates to craft the Strictly Business Kickball team of the Jewel City Division of the World Adult Kickball Association. That's right - WORLD. Who knew Kickball was so organized but, as they say, 30 is the new 8.

Our team is one of four in the division. Interestingly enough our division is the only one in the region and thus we are one of four teams in the region as well. I'll explain why that is interesting later but keep Las Vegas in mind.

The opening pitch of the Summer 2009 season were rolled out today and my team played in the second game of a non-traditional double-header. The first game featured the BoneCrushers-vs-Cabell Comprehensive Kickballers. The Kickballers are manned by a hodgepodge of serious kickers who have been studying technique and game video on YouTube while the BoneCrushers aren't nearly as fearsome as their name might suggest. In fact the only thing crushed today were the spirits of the Crushers who lost 5-0.

Our game pitted Strictly Business -vs- The CHAMPs. The first inning seemed to bode poorly for our neophyte team as we went 3-up 3-down. In the bottom of the first the CHAMPs got a runner on base after a booming double and then he was driven in by league president Cara after our first baseman seemed to fall asleep with the ball as a pillow.
There are 11 fielders including the pitcher and catcher and no matter how big your leg is you just can't kick a kickball as far as you think. So, with 11 fielders crowded around it can be tough to find a place to put the ball that will enable you to get on base.

At the end of 1 we were down 1 and things didn't look too promising for us. Lisa, our manager, made the call and I came in from the bullpen to provide 3 scoreless innings of masterful pitching on 2 kicks.

The subsequent innings for our offense went a little better as we peppered kicks throughout the game but by the time the fifth and final inning came around we were still losing 1-0. We were up first and if we didn't score the game would end in an embarrassing shutout.

Our first kicker, Brad, stepped up to the plate and drilled a solid single. He was followed by the top of our lineup - Mike, Joe, Megan, and Me. Mike waited patiently for his pitch and then drilled a deep fly ball to center field. The defense bobbled it and before you know it Brad was rounding third and scored easily. Meanwhile Mike was chugging in for a stand up triple! Just like that we had tied the game and we had a man in scoring position with no outs!

Next up was Joe. He saw a opening and he boomed another kick into center field it dropped in the gap between center and right and he too had a stand up triple. Suddenly we were up 2-1. Megan followed up with a short fly ball that was caught for an out. Then I was up and I kicked a nifty single just over the second baseman driving Joe in and giving us a 2 run lead. It turned out to be all we would score but it was enough.

Our reliever was called in and Tim "Soriano" stepped in and pitched a perfect 3-up 3-down inning sealing the deal for Strictly Business's first win of the season.

My entire team seemed to really enjoy themselves and overall it was an afternoon of great fun and comraderie. Next week we face off against the Bone Crushers and we will totally shift our field positions to make sure everyone is getting as much action as they want. Then, in week 3 we will be playing the only other currently undefeated team - Cabell Comprehensive Kickballers. The sports media is in a frenzy of anticipation for this battle of the titans.

I have to take the next two weeks off so I hope to return to the field with us enjoying a 3-0 season record. If we do start off that well we will be well on our way to being the number one seed in the playoffs - which, admittedly, doesn't mean much with only four teams - but if we can finish the playoffs in one of the top 2 positions we will qualify for the regional championships.

The funny thing is there is only one division (ours) in the region and the top two regional teams automatically qualify for nationals in Las Vegas in October. Thus if we can win our division we also earn a spot in Nationals. I don' know how many of our team would actually want to spend money to compete nationally in Kickball but at least we will have the option.

Spring = More Mountain Biking

4 min read

Ahh, the fresh air, the warm weather, and - best of all - the increased day light after work adds up to an additional day each week where my friends and I will be riding. Until the waning hours of fall approach we will be riding on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. Most of the time we are still riding at Barboursville park because we generally like the trails there. However, I think we will try a few other places as well - including, perhaps a weekend trip to some remote part of the state later in the year.

While I haven't been blogging about it I have still been riding these past few weeks and, this past weekend, the weather couldn't have been better. It was a nice and dry day, no humidity at all, and the thermometer was stuck in the mid 70's. It was gorgeous. Mike, Gilbert, and I headed out to the park but we were running late so we missed riding with Ed. Once we did start, however, we didn't take any prisoners and we attacked the mountain more aggressively than we have before. We went up our normal starting ascent and then circled down and around the mountain back to our starting point. From there we headed back up and followed the "trail of doom" down all the way to the bottom, through "green rocks" and over to the river trail.

At this point we haven't gone much further than we usually do before reaching the bottom but we have changed altitude a lot more thanks to the extra initial ascent and we have ridden much harder going down than normal. I'm not sure exactly what happened but I developed horrible, horrible, horrible heart burn on the way down so I decided that instead of taking the river trail with Mike and Gilber that I would just coast along on the road and meet them back at the top. As I peddled away from them I decided that instead I would follow the road to where they come out of the river trail and join them on the difficult "Devil's Hollow" ascent. Taking the road, it turns out, is a bit faster than the river trail and, undoubtedly, a bit shorter as well. I waited for a bit at the foot of the ascent and then decided to just push on without them. I took my time because every time I started to really push myself the heartburn kicked back in. After one of my many breaks I saw Mike and Gilbert had begun the climb so I finished up and waited for them. After we were all at the top we split up again as they wanted to go down a semi-difficult deer trail, follow the river again, and then go back up the road. I knew my chest wasn't having any of that so I decided to work my way back towards the car.

Of course, my plans change as I ride and I saw a hill that I have never managed to climb before so I made a go at it. I got a bit further but still couldn't complete the climb in the saddle and I had to walk my bike on the upper half. Once up there my heart burn was miserable so I just took it easy and rode on some flat ground until I saw a fun looking descent trail that I hadn't ridden before. It ended in a dead end as a huge tree covered the foot of the trail so I had to blaze my own path until i came across a grassy hill that I was able to ride down to reach a gravel access road. I then took the access road around a bit and up again until I reached the parking lot we started at.

Overall I think I rode about 9 miles. Mike and Gilbert rode about 12; Mike probably rode about 1/2 mile more than Gilbert because Gilbert ran out of water and wasn't feeling too good near the end of their second river trail ride.

One cool part of this ride was that Mike brought his camera and we took some pictures before a short, but very steep, descent. Even though the photos are cool I'm not sure they do justice to the apparent steepness when you are riding down. Hopefully we will continue to take photos and, as we do, I'll stick some more up in this album to share. For the meantime here are three of me as I progress down the descent.

Kindle Me Envious

2 min read

[caption id="attachment_872" align="alignleft" width="131" caption="The Kindle 2"]The Kindle 2[/caption]Pretty much everyone that knows me knows I love to read. When the first Kindle came out I was not enthused by the clunky look of the device and the big, obtrusive, page turning buttons. However, the screen was sweet. Thus, I began looking at all the different e-book reader devices out there thinking, maybe, someday, I'll buy one. I'm still not firmly decided on which reader I would buy but the new Kindle is a huge improvement over the last one. In fact, if you're considering buying me a $360 gift you could buy me a Kindle 2 and I would be pretty happy. The image alongside this paragraph represents the new Kindle while the next image is the uglier, bulkier, Kindle.

The new Kindle looks much better and they resized the page turning buttons so they won't be as obtrusive. They have made it substantially thinner and removed the odd clunky angles. Plus, beyond the obvious cosmetic improvements they've incrementally improved the systems performance and battery life. Not too bad considering it costs the same as the older, uglier, less desirable device. I imagine this one will sell much better than the last so long as they can keep up with demand. The Kindle was always on back order. It will be interesting to see how well Amazon prepares for demand this time around.

[caption id="attachment_873" width="383" caption="The Kindle 1"]The Kindle 1[/caption]

It might be hard to tell but the new Kindle and the old are both the same apx height and width but the new one is 1/3 as thick as the old.

December Catch-up

9 min read

So much was going on in December I wasn't able to blog at all. Now that the new year is here, Happy New Year by the way, I figure I should catch everyone up on what kept us so busy. Technically this story is going to start in late November but hopefully you won't hold that addendum against me.

Emily turned 5 on Nov 26 amidst great fanfare and even greater parties. I'm not sure how many she had but trust me, there were a bunch. Lisa's parents drove down when all the hoopla had pretty much died down and we had one last gasp (well not really the last but I'll get to that later). While they were here we decorated the yule time tree and stood in a circle singing carols. Ok, so we didn't actually stand in a circle or sing carols but it was a nice rockwellian image wasn't it? (unless you have heard me sing then perhaps it was a scary image).

I had to work for the first couple of days of December (making sure to call my mother on the 2nd for her hundredth birthday or some huge number like that; it was also my friend Mike's birthday). On around the 5th we loaded up the family cruiser for a trip to Disney World. Fortunately we only had to drive the cruiser about 1 hour to the airport where we then flew to Orlando by way of Atlanta. We stay at the cheapest hotel at Disney, the All-Star Sports/Music/Movies. Our room was at the All Star Music. If you paid attention 2 years ago you might remember that we stay in a family suite which is really just two hotel rooms merged into one with a small kitchenette. It's perfect for the four of us because it basically has two bedrooms but we don't have to pay for two full hotel rooms.

The last time we were at Disney Emily was sick with some kind of flu. This time she was healthy the whole time and, I think, old enough to really get into everything. Earlier I mentioned the last bash for Emily well it came at Disney this year. We had pre-ordered a cake with dumbo on it saying Happy Birthday Emily and some balloons (free with the cake, sweet!). I had to pick the cake up from the hotel restaurant our first night there. However, I had to wait a while so I sent the girls ahead to the park to get some early rides in. Finally I got the cake and brought it back to the room with five balloons. Then I hustled back to the hotels bus stop so I could get to the magic kingdom and find the rest of mi familia.

Sadly, the cake wasn't really seen that night because, by the time we got back to the hotel, Emily had fallen asleep. It was understandable considering the drive, the flight, the bus ride to the hotel, the ride to the magic kingdom, the rides, the fireworks, and then the bus ride back to the hotel; she is only five afterall.

I'm reluctant to describe our entire week at Disney so I'll spare you most of the details and I'll just stick with the highlights for the girls; the biggest of which was their trip to the Bibby Bobbidi Boutique which is kind of like a beauty parlor for kids. The girls both had their hair done in a Cinderella hairstyle, they had makeup applied, and "pixie dust" liberally coating them. They both seemed to really dig the whole experience and they both looked cool when it was all done. It was weird seeing Emily with makeup on. Shannon has had to have heavy makeup applied before for dance recitals but Emily hasn't; it was really really strange to see her all dolled up. You can see a bunch of photos from Disney if you'd like

Overall, the weather while were there was cold but dry except for the Thursday of our week when it rained hard. We had gone to the Animal Kingdom and we were soaked and cold by the time we got back to the hotel so we spent Thursday afternoon at downtown Disney checking out the shops. We did that all backwards because Thursday afternoon turned out to be really nice. The best thing about the rain in the morning was that the Animals were all out on the safari ride and all of the characters were in one building (which was mostly devoid of guests) so the girls were able to meet 7 or 8 characters without having to wait in line at all. We also got to see a monkey going through dental surgery which was kind of cool. They had just brought in a local dental surgeon come in to do it since the procedure was pretty much the same for the monkey as for a human.

After we got back from Disney I had to work for one week before starting my 2 weeks of holiday vacation. It was the first time since 2009 (our honeymoon) that I had taken 2 weeks off in a row. With weekends that equated to 16 days off! Sweet. For the first four days I called it "Billcation" and I mostly just sat around and read some books. At the end of the four days Lisa was then off work and we celebrated our own little Festivus on Dec 24 where I gave Lisa her big gift, a trip to the Grand Canyon this summer. I went to the canyon while I was in the Army and it was amazing. Lisa hasn't seen it so I think she will really dig it. We will actually be staying in Vegas and my brother and his wife will be joining us which will make it extra cool.

After our little celebration we loaded up the car for a trip to Cleveland where we spent about 7 days with Lisa's family. It is always nice to see them. My nephews are all basically young men now which is a little strange but cool. One night my three nephews and I went to a local university to play some pickup basketball. It turns out I still suck but now I am in such bad cardio shape that I couldn't even make up for my lack of skill with effort. Danny and Chris both tried hard and Pete was doing really well from three point land. We played 3 games of 2-on-2 with Pete and I winning the series. Then we switched to a four on four game where Chris (the youngest and shortest) played much better. He had to guard a really big guy (wide, but not really tall) who was pushing Chris all over the place. Chris didn't back down and even swatted a few of the other guys shots. It was great. Danny ended up getting some seriously nasty looking blisters so he and I sat out after the first game of 4-on-4 so that the teams would be even still.

Danny, Chris, and I along with the girls went bowling one day where I dominated with an avg of 146. We all went again another day with Lisa, her sister Jane, and her dad as well and, while I had the best average (146 again) Lisa had the high score of the week with a 178. She had been using a 10 pound ball and was struggling, she moved up to a 12 pound ball and never looked back. It was really cool to see her do so well. I think she and I need to go bowling more often. We both enjoy it and it isn't too expensive (though for the 17 games our group played plus shoe rental it was over $100!)

The only truly negative part of out time in Cleveland, for me, was that I am now officially burnt out on Hand and Foot. We were playing with 7 people in each hand and that is just too many. We really should have broken out into 2 groups because each game just took way too long.

Once we returned from Cleveland my Dad, Patty, and my brother Chris, swung by and we had a nice dinner and they gave me a really nice Scarf for Christmas. I already had a Liverpool Football Club scarf but it isn't very long and its very red so doesn't go that well with my work clothes. It has been fairly cold and windy here lately so a nice scarf fit the bill pretty well. This one is green and gray striped and is very long so I can tie it on like I saw everyone in London doing so now I'm not only warm but fashionable!

Ted sent us a digital picture frame with about 500 photos of his part of the family on it. That was cool because we tend to harass him about getting some photos. My mom sent me three books I've been wanting to read and I've already finished 2 of them. In fact, over the past month I've knocked out 11 books. I have some serious reviewing to get to over on my book blog. Lisa's parents gave me some new rubber for my mountain bike tires that should help improve my grip. I haven't been out riding in a while but I am hoping to hit the hills this weekend with Ed and Mike (and maybe Gilbert).

Finally, we had a small party for my dad's 63rd birthday the night before his actual birthday. We had paella and apple pie. It was great. Plus my dad had put together a prototype for a secret project we are working on and the prototype was perfect. We agreed to work on the final version sometime in the next couple of weeks and I'm really excited about it coming to fruition. I suppose I'll probably let the cat out of the bag when it is done just because I will be so excited about it and want to show it to everyone! Stay tuned.

London : Day 2

4 min read

Our second day in London got off to a slow start thanks to our late partying the night before. Jason and I both slept until around 10am. However, after that I think we made great use of our time.

We gathered up Mark and Paul and headed on the tube towards the Science museum. While some parts of it were oddly mundane, such as the "Household Materials" section which featured such simple items as tootpaste and baking soda, other parts were fantastic. There was a large section just on math; specifically dealing with calculus and geometry. There was also a nice section on various ships throughout time populated with incredibly detailed models. Some were huge and all were amazing.

We spent quite a bit of time in the museum until Mark, Jason, and I kind of gave up. Right next door was the natural history museum but we didn't really have the motivation to hang out in museums all day. Paul actually started to get the flu or something equally irritating so he kind of wanted to go back to the hotel. However, we looked at the map and saw we were only a few blocks from Harrods so we all decided to head over there and see that part of town.

We hardly spent any time at Harrods at all - maybe 15 minutes tops. We walked through their fine watch department and some of the watches pricetags lived up to the billing. I saw many at the 30-50k pound range; that's the $60-100k range in USD. We walked out of Harrods and there were two Ferrari's and a Mazeratti parked on the curb. Amazingly those weren't the nicest cars we saw. In fact, when we first got off the tube to go to the science museuem a Lamborgini store was just across the street so we swung by and imagined we could take a test drive. In reality we couldn't even enter the store.

After Harrods I thought Paul was going to head back to the hotel but then we realized we were fairly close to Hyde Park so we headed that way, then we were going to load Paul on a train but realized we were close to Buckingham Palace so we went over there.

We couldn't actually get close to the Palace, it is pretty well fenced off but we did get some nice photos of the famous guards. I was a little disappointed I couldn't get close to them though since Lisa really wanted me to get a photo up close. As we were leaving and heading down the main drive up to the Palace we saw a satellite guard shack that was just about to go through a changing of the guards. Sweet. I took some nice photos of the guards and Mark took a photo of me with one.

After our encounter with the guards we realized we were close to 10 Downing Street (Prime Ministers House) so we went there, then we saw Big Ben so we went there. By this point it seemed like Paul would never head back to the hotel but we finally split up. Mark, Jason, and I headed to Westminster Abbey but it was closed for tourists on Sundays so we decided to cross the Thames and check out the huge ferris wheel that is the eye. When we got there we ran back into Paul who had also decided to see the wheel.

Finally we headed toward a tube station and rode back to the hotel where we deposited Paul and then went out to dinner. Dinner was at a pitifully bad "pub" that was really more of a chain restaurant that was like a crappy Applebees. All in all it was a really good day and I think we managed to see an amazing amount of stuff. We still haven't made it to the Tower of London nor have we ridden the Eye but both are still planned for later this week.

I've put up some photos from day 2.